University of Rochester

Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Medical Center employee uses injury to inspire returning war veterans
By Tom Rickey
Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic

Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic, deputy director of the Medical Center’s Office of Technology Transfer, seen above rollerblading at his home, lost a leg during a car accident in 1976, after being trapped in his car for weeks. A world champion triathlete, Fahner-Vihtelic has challenged himself in remarkable ways in the years since. He now works with soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to inspire and challenge them to pursue their dreams.

It’s hard for many veterans returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan to find someone who can relate to what they’ve been through. That’s especially true for the thousands who have been severely wounded, trying to adjust not only to a dramatic shift in surroundings but also to life with an altered mind or body.
One University employee is playing a unique role easing the transition for scores of such veterans.
Johnny Fahner-Vihtelic, deputy director of the Medical Center’s Office of Technology Transfer, has some distinctive qualifications when it comes to military service and physical prowess—a Green Beret and world champion triathlete.
But when it comes to helping returning veterans who have lost limbs on the battlefield readjust to life back home, one of his main credentials is something he does not have.
His left foot and ankle.
Twenty-five years before 9/11 became a national day of tragedy, September 11 was a very bad day for Fahner-Vihtelic. Driving through a remote forest in Washington State in 1976, on his way from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Hood, his car edged near the shoulder of a road, which crumbled beneath the vehicle, sending vehicle and driver plummeting 150 feet down a steep ravine.
There, for 16 days, he stayed, crumpled inside the car between the dashboard and roof, pinned at the left foot and ankle by the root of a tree that had pierced the windshield, too far down the ravine to be seen or heard.
Immediately after the crash, Fahner-Vihtelic, who had trained as a medic with the Green Berets, quickly took stock of his situation and knew he didn’t have any immediately life-threatening injuries. But he realized he would die without water. So he pulled metal coil from the car’s ceiling, tied it to string he unraveled from his tennis racket, and fastened one end to a shirt. Day after day he was a man fishing for water, repeatedly casting the shirt into a nearby stream and reeling it back, squeezing the water from the shirt into his mouth.
When gangrene began to set into his foot, he determined to free himself no matter how difficult. He began chipping at the tree with the crowbar. When that wasn’t enough, he spent an entire day devising a way to get his hands on a nearby rock, and with that in hand, was able to chip at the tree with enough force to free his foot. He scrambled up the embankment and was found by a passer-by. At the hospital his left leg was amputated midway between his knee and ankle.
The same resourcefulness that kept Fahner-Vihtelic alive is what he brings on regular trips to Walter Reed Hospital near Washington, D.C. There, he helps wounded veterans adjust to their new bodies and regain a part of themselves.
“The first time I met with a bunch of soldiers at Walter Reed, it was an incredibly moving experience,” he says. “The fact that these guys just want to get active again is wonderful. I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Fahner-Vihtelic regularly gives inspirational talks about his ordeal and survival to small groups. He’s even been featured on TV shows like the Today Show and To Tell the Truth, as well Readers Digest. But the road back wasn’t a snap.
Fahner-Vihtelic, who had always been extremely fit and active, was disappointed with the athletic opportunities he was able to find.
“Back in 1976, the state of the art in prosthetics was very different than it is now. And for people who enjoyed athletics, there was wheelchair basketball and handicapped skiing, and that was about it.
“One day I just realized I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be,” he says. “I wasn’t doing what was best for my body. This was back in the early 1980s, when people with serious injuries like an amputation were warned against being too active because they might injure themselves further. Thankfully, that myth has been laid to rest.”
Partly inspired by a book given by a grateful employee about getting to the Olympics, and driven simply by the desire to be fit, Fahner-Vihtelic gradually became more active.
“The question after an injury like this is, what will I be able to do? How close to normal will I ever be? In the first few years after my injury, I didn’t find a lot available to me. One just doesn’t know where to go. I happened to hear about a ski resort that had handicapped skiing. I tried it, and it was eye opening. It was huge mentally. The next question was, ‘Now, what else can I do?’”
The years since read like a to-do list for someone who pushes his body to extremes. Largely through an organization known as World Team Sports, Fahner-Vihtelic has taken part in a series of events that have inspired and challenged him, as well as others. The organization brings together able-bodied and physically challenged people to take on tasks that would make most people blanch, as part of its mission to promote awareness, acceptance, and integration of people with disabilities.
In 1995 he took part in World Ride ’95, a 2,300-mile jaunt via bicycle from Russia across Siberia and through the Gobi Desert to Beijing. In 1997 he participated in the Antarctica Marathon, dodging dive-bombing gulls while traversing the ice, rocks, and streams of the great ice continent. In 1998 he took part in a dozen triathlons and became the world champion triathlete for people over the age of 40 with an amputation below the knee.
He also fought through a series of injuries in 1999, including a broken leg sustained in a fall by a pool, a pulled hamstring, and a serious leg wound caused by a power auger.
Soon after, in 2001, Fahner-Vihtelic left the University of Utah and joined the Medical Center, where he handles a variety of duties in technology management. He has helped give birth to nearly a dozen start-up companies. He decides whether to pursue patents on discoveries made by researchers each year, and he seeks out companies that might be interested in purchasing University technology. He also negotiates licenses and helps raise venture capital.
Since coming to Rochester, he has taken part in a series of long-distance bike rides that put recovering veterans in the spotlight. A year after the 9/11 tragedy, he biked as part of a group that traveled 300 miles from Ground Zero to the Pentagon. Earlier this year he helped organize the 110-mile Face of America bike ride from Gettysburg to Washington, which included several servicemen who had been wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He takes a special interest in helping out veterans and visiting Walter Reed, as well as working with local veterans who have been injured. He teaches them how to use a hand-powered bicycle, helps them get a good fit with their prosthesis and their bikes, and is an expert at locating bikes for people with special needs.
“The start is getting these guys spinning around the track on a hand-powered cycle. The rest is up to them. How hard do they want to work? How much pain are they willing to take? Our message is, if you need equipment, it’s out there. If you need instruction, it’s available. There are resources to help you out. These kids see me, and I can say, hey, this happened to me, and I can still do this stuff.
“People who get their legs back—they’re so happy to be walking again. I know the feeling of wondering whether you’ll ever walk again. Those early steps, as painful as they are, are also euphoric.”

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